Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Cross and Hell

On Sunday morning a friend of mine and of the church came and spoke.  He came and spoke about the Cross of Christ.  I know he sometimes reads my blog so please feel free to answer some of the questions that have sprung up in my mind as a result of what you said on Sunday!

Two main points that came up that I want to discuss:

1. 'We are more wicked than we could possibly imagine but more loved than we could have ever dreamed'.  
Now the more loved bit I can cope with, but the more wicked bit I'm struggling with.
I believe we are all sinners and that we have all fallen short of the glory of God.  I believe that the gravity of sin is seen at the Cross of Jesus.  I believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world. But does these lead us to conclude that we are more wicked than we could possible imagine?  Or that the consequences of sin are more terrible than we could imagine?
I believe we are all capable of great wickedness and that sin can lay at our door ready to consume us, but are we defined by our wickedness or by our goodness?  Put another way, does God see us as wicked or as good?  Are we wicked with a dose of goodness or are we created good and distorted by sin?  Are we not created in God's image and therefore seen as 'good' by God but because of sin we are capable of great wickedness?  
I suppose I'm asking the question, where is our starting point when we are seeking a theology of humanity?

2.  'Better than you deserve'.  Another point was that whatever we are going through in our lives it is better than we deserve.  In other words, because we deserve hell but have been saved by God, anything that we go through in this life is better than what we deserve.
I just wonder how that would sound to those who experience hell on earth.  How does that sound to the mother who has lost her baby to disease or to the husband who's wife has been killed in a car crash or to those caught up in wars and disasters.   

I want to ask the only 2 theological questions that we need 'What kind of God?' and 'So what?'.  

What kind of God is being believed in here and what are the implications for believing in this God?  To me it sounds like a schizophrenic God who says 'I love you/I want to punish you/stop moaning about your suffering, it's better than hell.'  This then leads me onto a theology of hell and what it is because this again begs the question of 'what kind of God?'

If hell is a place of eternal torment then the above theology fits (better than we deserve) and if hell is a place of eternal fire and torment then how does that fit with cross of Christ?

The Cross says that the Kingdom of God does not come with violence and coercion, but comes through suffering and sacrifice.  Yet a traditional conservative view of hell and the atonement says that actually God will still get his way and inflict pain and torment and punishment on those whom he supposedly loves.

The human soul is not immortal in the sense that its immortality is given by God.  Therefore, if hell is a place of eternal torment then God willingly allows those in hell to be tormented for eternity on the basis of some finite sin.  This is not justice.  Would God really do to those whom he loves that which humanity would not do to their worst enemies?  Admittedly our understanding of justice is flawed by sin, but what kind of God is this?  It's a God a would not want to follow.  Does not this view of God and the vision of God revealed through Christ sit opposed to each other?  Surely God's justice is way above our own, defined by his love.

The person of Jesus and His work on the Cross is one of suffering and sacrifice to reveal the love and forgiveness of God.  God could have forgiven us without the Cross.  The Cross was not needed for God to forgive us.  It was the consequences of our sin that needed to be dealt with (death, decay etc).  This is why penal substitution sits so uneasy with me.  It means that God asks of us something he is unable to do.  God says 'forgive'.  PS says that God can't forgive unless he punishes someone in our place.  That's like God saying to you 'Go and forgive your neighbour and then go kick the cat'.  

I realise that on Sunday hell was not really spoken about and penal substitution was not explored, but I suspect the traditional conservative view of the cross and hell were at the foundation of what was being said.  Please do not see this as a attack on the person, it is a concern with certain streams of doctrine.

I am still trying to work through my own understandings of anthropology,  ontology, theology of the Cross etc so apologies if the above seems a bit disjointed.   


Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

Rob here, thanks for your comments. You've said so much in such a short space I hardly know where to start in response! For now a few observations. More to follow I am sure.

1) "We are more wicked than we ever feared". This was what I said and I think it can be shown to be an adequate summary of biblical teaching. I anticipated that some would object "we're not that bad" and i guess that's what you're saying. My responses to that objection were really more of an aplogetic but you are making a thelogical objection - namely what about original goodness? For now just a few remarks. To be sure, the biblical material supports the idea of human kind being created good and in the imagine of God. But the controvesy is whether the fall has had a significant impact on our identity. Here I think the biblical material unflinchingly paints a desperately pessimistic view! Jesus boldy declares "No one is good but God alone" in John's gospel. Paul statement that we are "dead in sin" seems as strong as anything. Frankly if we were to take any book of the Bible I don't think it would be drawing us to any other conclusion. Do you have any scriptures in mind when you make your case for an emphasis on human goodness?

2) Hell. There are a whole host of issues being raised here. For now lets avoid the question of the duration of hell (i.e. is it eternal?) which is a side issue. I think the Bible clearly portrays hell as a place of punishment (See 1 Thess 1:8-9) and that it is something we deserve. I'm not sure you agree with this - do you?
It'd be useful to know before we move on to other aspects.

That will have to do for now. Thoughts?

Joe said...

Hey Rob! Cheers for getting back to me.

I agree that without doubt that we are in dead in sin! That's why the cross is so vital. I have no problem in understanding that we are sinners and the result of sin is death. That doesn't point to us being more wicked than we feared, it points to a consequence of sin.
What I'm seeking to understand is how does God see us? Does he look at us as wicked or as good but clearly distorted by sin? Rather than picking a verse out but looking at the narrative of the gospels I see Jesus understanding people in this way. Clearly sick because of sin, but created in his image. Therefore there is a divine 'spark' in each of us.

The issue of hell's duration is key to an understanding of hell because if it is eternal then God HAS to allow it to be eternal. He is not removed from it. He has to allow hell to be eternal, so it reflects out understanding of who God is.
Is it a place of punishment? Well Jesus himself says that it is. What that punishment is, is another question.
Do we deserve it? I suppose what I'm seeking to understand is again, how does God see us? I don't believe in original GUILT but I do believe in original SIN and I think the two are very different.
Original GUILT says we deserve it because we are all guilty before God whereas original sin says that the consequences of sin lead to death. So the consequences of sin deserve judgement and lead to final loss. So does God say 'YOU deserve hell' or 'The consequences of your sin deserve hell' and I think there's a difference.

I think at the root of it is trying to understand a theology of God. Like I said in the post' What kind of God?' and 'So what?'

Cheers for coming last week by the way! It was good to see you guys. So sporadic nowadays, so it's good to be able to catch up.

Bless you mate

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe, thanks for your reply. It's late so again just a few remarks.
i) I guess the statement "we are more wicked than we feared" is revealed by the cross because we see that our sin deserves such a dire consequnce - do people think they are wicked enough to deserve death? No, hence the statement "We are more wicked than we feared". Of course there are exceptions somewhere but I still stand by it as a helpful statement of biblical truth.
ii) How goes God see us. There are two important strands here; we are immensly valuable and precious to him but terribly wicked and in rebellion from him. We don't lose our value because of sin but clearly we don't reflect the imagine of God in a satisfactory way. Our finest efforts are filthy rags says one biblical author and yet there is potential and hope because of his grace. I also think a good understanding of the implications of justification by faith is essential to answer the question "how does God see me?".
iii) Do we deserve hell. Of course we do. You admit it is a place of punishment and we must deserve it else it would be a wrong punishment. If we are responsible creeatures able to make choices then we are responsible for our sin and consquently guilty - I cannot see how we can seperate our responsibility from our sin.

Good to see you, love to Sarah and Gracie, God bless, Rob.

Joe said...

A question may be, does God send people to hell because they deserve it, or does God send people to hell because it is what THEY want. C.S Lewis said, 'There are only two kind of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done", and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done."
So hell is self-selected and is forced onto no-one.

At the cross we see the gravity of sin, I agree. It is horrific. But did Jesus die as our substitute and receive our punishment, or did Jesus die as our representative (and they are very different) and deal with the consequences of sin?

Muslims don't understand our concept of forgiveness. They are confused because they (quite rightly) ask why does God need a mechanism to forgive us? Surely he can forgive us if he wants to. Which is right. The cross deals with the consequences of sin and sets us free from those consequences.

Can punishment be seen in terms of chastisement? In Isaiah 53 'punishment' can also be translated as 'chastisement'. So will there be a final purging or chastisement? Is this what hell is?

How does God see me in terms of justification by faith depends on how you would interpret justification by faith! ;0)

I do not want to deny personal responsibility for our sin and an owning up to the responsibility of that sin and its consequences, what I'm seeking to understand is if God deems us as wicked creatures because of our sin.

We're gonna go round in circles I think! Good to discuss mate. I enjoy a good discussion. What next?! ;0)

Bless ya

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe, this will have to be my last reply on this thread - perhaps we need to hammer this out over a beer!

Let me just pick up some of your comments about substitutionary atonement, a doctrine which has taken a battering in recent years. My preach clearly assumed this doctrine and it seems you are uncertain about it. Let me first lay my cards on the table - I love this doctrine and I am fully persuaded it is glorious and entirely biblical. So I am pretty biased ;)

Just like i don't think we can remove the idea of punishment from the concept of hell I don't think we can remove it from the cross. To me propiation features so clearly across the whole bible i am simply fathomed by those who claim it to be untrue yet claim to support biblical authority. Romans 5:8-11 would be enough for me even if there was nothing else! The cross of Christ by John Stott to me felt gracious and gentle yet completely irrefutable. The latest "pierced for our transgressions" makes it's case very strongly too. What indeed frustrates me is that many scholars don't seem to be willing to respond properly to the arguements that have been made and also critise a version of PS that no-one is saying.

Your problem seems to be with reconcialing the idea of forgiveness with PS. I think this has been well answered by advocates of PS, in pierced for out transgressions it has been answered head on in particular- have you read it? The answer is to do with the fact that God himself in Christ (to whom we owe our debt) pays the debt on our behalf. It is interesting how much atonement and forgiveness go hand in hand throughout Leviticus too. Pardon is on offer because a price will be paid. Anyway this one probably needs more explaining to satisfy you.

Joe said...

I think you're right, we'd prob have to discuss this stuff over a drink! ;0)

My final comments on this thread with particular thoughts on PS.

Firstly, I would say that Romans 5:8-11 in no way points to PS in my reading of it. I would struggle to find any passage in all of Scripture that could be linked with PS.

I haven't read 'PFOT' so can't comment on it personally. I know a couple of people who have read it. Admittedly they both reject PS and so are prob also biased, but they don't think the book argues the case very well, but like I said, I haven't read it.

So what is the debt we owe?

At its very simplest, is PS a belief that Jesus takes the wrath of God in our place and the penalty of our sin, on the cross? Does Jesus appease the wrath of God at the cross? Does God's righteousness need satisfying?

If Christ was punished in our place for our sins, why are some people still punished in hell? If Christ recieved the wrath of God and was punished fully in our place then why is punishment still given in hell? Has the price been paid or not? This is one of the ways in which PS fails as a doctrine.

Either Christ was punished for all the sins of all people (and leads to universalism), Christ was punished for all the sins of some people (which leads to limited atonement) or Christ died for some sins of all people (which means no-one is saved).

So do you believe in limited atonement?

Furthermore, the doctrine of PS means that Christ does not need to be divine, merely a perfect sacrifice. God simply needs a perfect, sinless sacrifice to placate his wrath.
PS says too little in my opinion. It doesn't say enough.

When I read Scripture I see God purging and cleansing the sins of the people, not penalty. Read Joshua 7:1-26 for an example of this. God's punishment is reformative and restorative, chastening and purification (which is how to understand the metaphor's of fire in Scripture).

So as you can see I have rejected completely PS as a model of the atonement! I cannot see any scriptual support for it. But hey, God loves diversity!

Bless you.

Tom Haward said...

In regards to PS, it's theologically arrogant to try and make it a dogma rather than a doctrine. To state that deviation from Biblical authority comes from not supporting PS is bizarre. Just because Conservative Evangelicalism sees it as a dogma doesn't mean the whole of Christianity sees it that way. PS is a doctrine and therefore can be argued against (with Biblical support) quite easily. The Bible may be clear in your eyes, Rob, about this theory, but I can read the Bible and support buying a slave tomorrow. Did God need to satisfy his wrath or want to satisfy his wrath? Either way, you have an impotent god whose wrath is more powerful than him or a god with anger issues. I also don't see any PS in the Nicene Creed.

To say we are more wicked than we feared and we ultimately deserve worse than we're going through is an evangelical-ism. Of course, it also comes from how the Bible is viewed and applied. Proof texts can make any idea valid. After all the Bible says in the Psalms, "There is no God." Clearly a book for the atheist. Jesus was fully man and therefore, if this is the case, he had the potential to kill, rape, steal, lie and abuse others. He became fully man so therefore was he also more wicked than he feared? Or was it that he had the potential for wickedness but resisted the temptation to be wicked? The idea of wickedness is completely subjective anyway. Certain streams of Christianity see alcohol as a sin, others don't; homosexuality is accepted by God and not accepted by God; women leadership is heretical and not heretical. 'Biblical Authority' is a farce when you can argue, validly, completely opposing views.

I am not an adjective, I am a human being trying to understand what it is to be human. If God is how you describe him, Rob, then you're welcome to him because he's not god. I'm not offended by him, I'm rather disappointed and pity him.

Anonymous said...

Theology... Opinions, interpretations, different translations, human influences.
We can all understand that this is what mainly depicts our beliefs and our image of God.
This is healthy to an extent, where we can discuss OPINIONS, vital word here! As soon as our beliefs become closed and one tracked surely we're likely to miss something far more important- having a relationship with God. I believe its far too easy to become occupied with the notion of what God is like and why he does and doesn't do things etc...
Sure God wants us to go deeper with him and to seek his face, i think we have to make sure that we're not barking up the wrong trees sometimes.
When opinions begin to cause division and breakdown of relationship with each other, and people are being hurt and offended by relatively unimportant things in the bigger picture. The body of Christ falls apart... don't know about you but any other type of body i know that falls apart dies.

'And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.'

Lets love one another first, and seek Gods heart.

Joe said...

I agree. Love is at the centre.

I suppose what I'm trying to do is seek a place of theology that reflects the love of God. All our theology reflects who we are as people and what we do as people. You can't separate theology and ethics. I behave a certain way because of my certain beliefs.

Perhaps Tom has had an experience of theology (and therefore ethic) that does not reflect the love of God. Perhaps the Church has become so entrenched in certain views without remembering that we are dealing with real people with real lives that need real love.

Like you say, the starting point needs to be a love for one another and, for those who are able, a love for God.

Amie Spiller said...

I've just read all your comments, and found it really hard to follow!? There's a lot of theological terminology, and words i don't always understand, so apologies if what i write doesn't present a true reflection on the topic being spoken about!

My first thought is about 'theology' itself and that Christianity becomes more about theological debate that just about basic, simple, honest faith? I'd like to point out that none of us will EVER understand God, and we can debate it, and try and seek the answers until we go blue in the face! I find that from reading all these angles/opinions i become more confused, more skeptical than ever! I completely support the idea of not being 'one tracked' and to be able to consider all angles and views is healthy. Otherwise we become ignorant, naive, and foolish, but i think that we can lose the point very easily, if we get wrapped up in all this 'theory'

You all speak of Love, and Sin. Well from reading some of things said about God, i have to say he actually sounds like an angry, wrathful, horrible, unforgiving God. And that if I'm lucky, i might get to experience the redemption and salvation that Evangelists talk about. I personally don't believe we are that wicked. I think that by adopting this idea of being 'more wicked than we feared' then there is no hope for me. I believe that Temptation is stronger than ever, and that this makes it harder for us as Christians. I am a sinner, always have been and always will be, no matter how hard i try i will always succumb to sin. So if i turned my back on God now, would i be dammed to hell? Or would God consider my heart? How much i can love? My good will, and consideration for others and the world i live in? I dont believe my destination is hell. I have accepted Jesus as the Son of God - therefore i am saved. This means heaven right? I resent the idea of living in fear, guilt and shame because the God who loves me might reject me because of Sin and send me to hell! This leads me onto my other thought:

Can we please define Sin before determining the consequence of it? How can we argue and debate what the punishment for mankind is until the idea of sin is clarified - the concept of Sin i question especially within my own christian faith.

I may be totally naive, or just ignorant, but these are often things i consider as a christian who feels failed by 'religion' or 'church'

Your response would be greatly appreciated

Joe said...

Welcome Amie!!

I think our understanding of who God is (theology) leads us to live a certain way of life (ethics). I'm in a place where I believe God is more loving and gracious than we could ever get our heads around.

Sin - I believe at it's very root, sin is that we have not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment was to do this and everyone has failed in this.

So, Jesus, the only one who has loved God with all heart, soul, mind and strength, died on the cross to reconcile us to God, to restore our relationship with him so we could learn and experience what it means to love God and know his love in return.

So, the way I live my life reflects how much I love God. Not only that, but how much I love my neighbour (the second greatest commandment).

Sin at it's root is not loving God and not loving each other.

Jesus came to lead us to a place where more and more we can love God and love each other and that our lives would reflect Jesus. So when we look at each other does the life of Jesus shine out of us?

We cannot underestimate the gravity of sin. When you look at the cross of Jesus we see how bad sin is and its consequences. But Jesus came to set us free from its consequences.

So what's the consequence of not loving God and each other?

Like I said earlier, there will be 2 types of people in the end, those who say to God 'Your will be done' (in other words, God have your way in my life for all eternity) and those to who God says, 'Your will be done' (in other words, God saying to us, 'You have your way then. If you don't want me and don't want to love me and follow me then that's your choice. You can choose that for all eternity.')

With regard to a feeling of being failed by 'church' and 'religion', I think you and many others feel there is something wrong with church and that something needs to change. You're not alone in how you feel!
But, there are loads of people who are seeking new ways they can explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Church is changing in the West all over the place.
There is link to 'Emergent Village' on my blog list. Have a read. These people are all very dissatisfied by church in the west.

Anonymous said...

Weclome Tom, Amie and Anon,

Rob here just wanted to pick up a few things. Firstly, Joe your last response was absolutely spot on!!! I have nothing more to say everyone - just read that post!

Amie - I'm sorry you've found our debate hard to follow - I didn't realise we had an audience! I feel there is something absolutely essential and significant that we have missed here. Transformation. Jesus doesn't primarily offer us set of things to think, or experiences to feel or things to do. He offers us transformation - literally a new start and new creation. You can still think the wrong things (and be theologically confused) and be a christian. You can still miss out on certain experiences and still be a christian. You can make mistakes and not do the right things and be a christian. That's because Jesus doesn't primarily offer a truth to believe, a path follow, or experiences to have - He offers a transformation, a new start, a new identity - in him. There is a talk on this subject that I love: http://www.bethinking.org/other-religions/intermediate/understanding-the-root-of-the-gospel.htm.

Interestingly the Bible never refers to Christians as sinners - instead saints (who of course sometimes sin but still saints). That's because Jesus has changed us.

In closing let me come clean about one more thing. I believe in grace. I believe that God rescues us not because be deserve it or have earned it but because he is so wonderfully generous. I believe in second, third, fourth... chances. I believe that God doesn't let go of us even when we let go of him. I believe we live by grace and rely on grace every day not just for our salvation. To me the idea that Jesus would die in our place and take a punishment we deserve only shines his love and grace all the more. He did this for me - I don't deserve this! It's not utlimately about who I am or what I've done, it's about him. What grace!

If anyone wants to talk more - lets go for a beer when I'm next down in the fine island!!

Joe said...

Cheers Rob for all your input!! Been good discussing and chatting online. I'm sure there will be plenty of over topics of debate that will come up on this blog! ;0)

Feel free everyone else to continue the discussion though! There are a few of Tom's points that are WIDE open to discussion! :0) (Biblical interpretation being one of them.)